How Montgomery, Alabama, is using routing software to transform its waste collection

How Montgomery, Alabama, is using routing software to transform its waste collection

The city of Montgomery, Alabama, overhauled its waste collection efforts through investment in new technology.

April 22, 2019

The proliferation of in-vehicle technology has given haulers a suite of capabilities the previous generation could only dream of. With advanced routing capabilities, instant data capture and driver behavior tracking, today’s route optimization software is becoming the norm in many fleets throughout the country.

Recognizing the benefits this software could have on increasing efficiency and promoting accountability, the city of Montgomery, Alabama, made the decision to outfit its fleet of 80 residential and commercial waste vehicles with Atlanta-based Rubicon Global’s RUBICONSmartCity technology this past June for a six-month trial run. Through smartphones loaded with the Rubicon hauler mobile app as well as plug-in devices that connect to the truck’s OBD II port, the technology presents an opportunity for the city to better service its 61,000 residences.

Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange says the city decided to invest in technology across its departments five years ago, but it wasn’t until Montgomery City Public Works Director Chris Conway met with Rubicon Global Director of Smart Cities Conor Riffle at the Municipal Waste Management Association’s U.S. Conference of Mayors in fall 2017 that the city got serious about investing in its waste operations.

“We had a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting where we decided we wanted to weave technology throughout all of our operations in the city that we could become a smart city, so to speak,” Strange says. “So, my managers and cabinet members started looking for ways that we could leverage technology, make our operations more efficient, more cost- effective and give better customer service. That was the motivation for us to look at Rubicon Global’s technology when the opportunity came around.”

Eyes and ears on the street

There are a lot of features users can access with fleet routing software. One of the major benefits of RUBICONSmartCity in particular, according to Rubicon SVP of Policy & Strategic Initiatives Michael Allegretti, is that it can serve as a type of roaming data center tracking issues throughout the city.

“We are always focused on building products that help our customers and our potential customers drive more value in their day-to-day operations, whether that’s operations of waste, recycling and diversion, or more broadly speaking, operations of an entire city,” Allegretti says. “RUBICONSmartCity is an exciting product because we look at city fleets, particularly waste service vehicles, as the eyes and ears of cities. These vehicles go down every street in every city at least once a week and can be used for tracking a myriad of issues.”

According to Conway, the software is easy for drivers to use, simply requiring the push of a button to document potential areas of concern that need addressed.

“This software can tell you if you have property maintenance issues, street maintenance issues, traffic maintenance issues—whatever those things might be, you’ve got a vehicle that’s out there driving every street in your city that’s able to give you real-time feedback that can be leveraged so you can respond in a more proactive manner,” Conway says.

Conway says that the software’s ability to easily capture data and pictures specific to waste-related issues was one of the main features that motivated the city to test Rubicon’s equipment. Through the dash-mounted smartphone, drivers were able to notify managers and supervisors of problems with improperly placed or missing carts, contamination and other issues, leaving a paper trail in the process that enforced accountability for both city workers and residents.

It’s this information that’s invaluable support for haulers when there are questions of culpability, Riffle says.

“After 6 months, Montgomery’s drivers have documented more than 25,000 times when they haven’t been able to service a location, and they’ve been able to document the reason why they haven’t served that location,” Riffle says. “That includes hundreds and hundreds of photos of things like bins not being out or bins being improperly filled or bins being blocked. And what this gives the city is the ability to provide feedback to the customer that says, ‘Hey, not only were we unable to service your bins, here’s the reason why.’”

Moving into the digital age

Beyond tracking issues out on the road, routing software gives drivers and fleet managers more modern and versatile tools for completing pickups. While haulers used to have to rely on dated maps and hardcopy documentation, RUBICONSmartCity tracks everything digitally.

“The smart device in the cab of the truck allows us to get away from the days of the paper clipboard where you hope the driver is able, willing or has the time to write stuff down while behind the wheel. The software also lets us know on a real-time basis where the driver is at any time during the day or how much of a percentage they have completed on a given route,” Conway says. “We used to have to rely on reams of old computer printouts. Now we’re in a digital age where we can track things instantaneously.”

One feature that the city of Montgomery didn’t choose to implement during its trial period with the software was its route mapping feature. However, Conway says that is the next logical extension for the city as it moves forward with the new technology in 2019. Beyond helping increase the speed and efficiency of the drivers’ routes, Conway says that he anticipates the smarter navigation capabilities will have a noticeable difference on the cost of collection.

“We really feel like there’s probably going to be a large opportunity to consolidate some routes and reduce the number of trucks that we need once we start using our routing software,” Conway says. “That is an opportunity to save some real dollars, not just from a fleet management standpoint, but from a purchasing standpoint.”

Going all in

Conway says the city made the decision to purchase the RUBICONSmartCity technology only a couple months into the trial period after seeing how seamlessly it was adopted. He says that after the first month of use, roughly 25 percent of drivers were using the system as intended. This number jumped to roughly 90 percent by the end of the six-month period thanks to an investment in training, as well as a willingness to learn.

“It’s a very user-friendly application. The main thing is you need buy-in from the top down and from the bottom up,” Conway says. “And we certainly had that with our organization. We’re all involved in this. Everybody knew that we were trying something new with this pilot, and we stressed to them that it was only going to be as useful as we made it. We had a tremendous buy-in from our employees.”

Conway says that by focusing on its benefits rather than using it as a “Big Brother” tool for reprimanding staff, the city has seen its waste collection efforts improve dramatically, setting the stage for greater adoption in the coming months.

Getting recognized

In recognition of the city’s ongoing efforts to use technology to improve how it serves its customers, Montgomery was selected as a Smart 50 Award winner in the Urban Operations category in January.

The Smart 50 Awards, presented by Smart Business magazine, recognize the 50 most transformative smart city projects across the world.

With a vision that was conjured up five years prior, the award was recognition of the city’s efforts to create a better life for its residents and municipal workers through investment in technical innovation.

“These awards … are a testament to our team’s dedication to embracing technology to pave the way for new opportunities and enhance overall quality of life in Montgomery,” Strange said upon winning the award. “Most importantly, these award-winning projects allow us to better serve our residents, ease the burden on staff resources and save taxpayer dollars. We are committed to finding even more innovative ways to build a brighter future and make Montgomery the best place to live, work and visit in our state and our region.”

Adam Redling is the editor for Waste Today and can be contacted at


The new normal

Features - Operations Focus| Material Recovery Facilities

After opening its MRF in the wake of National Sword, the Monterey Regional Waste Management District is adapting to industry changes.

March 11, 2019
Photo by Nic Coury

If you polled recyclers on the most inopportune time to open a new material recovery facility (MRF) over the last several decades, early 2018 would surely be high on the list.

China’s comprehensive recycling ban imposed by its National Sword policy was put into effect in January of last year, wiping out the lion’s share of domestic recyclers’ No. 1 market overnight. Stockpiling material and plummeting commodity prices ensued across the country.

Those were challenges the Monterey Regional Waste Management District (MRWMD) faced as it opened the doors to its newly renovated $24 million, 100,000-square-foot facility in February 2018 that was constructed to process single-stream recycling, construction and demolition (C&D) debris and mixed commercial waste. The MRF is part of MRWMD’s comprehensive waste management infrastructure that includes a landfill, a reuse store and composting and anaerobic digestion sites.

Dealing with the changes

According to Tim Brownell, the director of operations at Monterey Regional Waste Management District, it quickly became obvious that the changes in the market were going to have a profound effect on the MRF’s bottom line.

“There was sticker shock in a way when we opened in that the revenue we thought we would be getting from the facility was obviously less than anticipated,” Brownell says. “So, when we opened the facility, our business plan in terms of revenues and costs was turned upside down right off the bat.”

According to Brownell, the half-percent contamination thresholds imposed by the China ban required the facility to rethink its strategy for handling incoming material. To help improve purity rates, the facility brought in more manual sorting personnel to assist with the recycling efforts.

“We originally were thinking we would need roughly 16 sorters on the line to go with all the new separation equipment, but we really needed to bulk up the number of folks on our presort line,” Brownell says. “We also had to add additional folks on our post-sort line to really aggressively pull out nonrecyclable materials. So, our sorting staff estimate was that we’d need approximately 16 people on the line, and within two months of opening, we had 26 sorters on the line.”

Beyond the contamination thresholds that required unanticipated vigilance, Brownell says the facility was also being tasked with handling unforeseen volumes. The facility is on pace to process 60,000-65,000 tons of single-stream recycling a year—four times more than the 15,000 annual tons they expected when opening.

“National Sword has impacted everybody in that they’ve had to slow down their lines to try and meet those contamination requirements,” Brownell says. “Instead of a facility being able to run 40 tons an hour, they had to slow down to 30 tons an hour. It has decreased processing capacity across our area. Our facility opening up allowed recyclers a local option for offloading materials instead of them having to move their materials to the San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland Bay area.”

Although the China ban diminished the price of some materials and facilitated the need to hire more staff, Brownell says the increase in volume that the facility has been processing has allowed the MRWMD to meet its original revenue projections through new and familiar end markets.

The predominance of the fiber generated by MRWMD—mixed paper, office paper and corrugated—is still getting exported but very little is going to China. Brownell says the majority of these materials are now shipping to Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia. Conversely, Brownell says the majority of the plastics (separated PET, HDPE, clear and colored, and a No. 5 polypropylene grade) that are sorted on-site, as well as the metals generated at the plant, are shipped domestically. The exception is a mixed rigid plastics grade composed of mostly HDPE that is being shipped internationally, most recently to Taiwan.

Working smarter

The facility has both a C&D line and a single-stream line that also accommodates some mixed solid waste processing. On the C&D line, the MRF processes between 65,000 and 70,000 tons per year at a recovery rate slightly over 65 percent. On the single-stream and mixed solid waste line, they’re processing roughly 65,000 tons per year with a 70 percent recovery rate.

The recycling line features bag breaking and screen technology from Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), Eugene, Oregon, that work together to filter incoming materials and present consistently sized fractions to the plant’s single-drum separators from Nihot, Amsterdam, which remove contamination from the fiber and container streams. A FiberPure optical sorter from National Recovery Technologies (NRT), Nashville, Tennessee, sorts either plastic film or paper, depending on the material stream and the operator’s discretion, and recovers various types of plastics as needed, based on their marketability. MRWMD bales recyclables with a PAAL Konti baler from Kadant, Westford, Massachusetts.

Brownell says that while the combination of new equipment and increased staffing has allowed the plant to better sort incoming materials, the stricter regulations facing the industry have also forced the plant to put a greater emphasis on training.

“There was one benefit, I think, to us opening when we opened,” Brownell says. “We opened probably at the worst point in terms of material value and restrictive quality standards, but we were forced to train our people to those standards. It wasn’t about doing what we did in the past—the market standards set a new precedent. Although the economic timing was awful, the reality that we’ve been able to train our staff to really understand that quality matters has been a tremendous benefit.”

An emphasis on education

Brownell says that in addition to training staff, residents and haulers in the community need to be part of the solution to help bring about a higher standard of quality in the post-China-ban age of recycling.

“I think the biggest learning challenge and the biggest adjustment that needs to be made is getting both the public and the hauling community familiar with the fact that it’s a new time,” Brownell says. “We really want the public to understand what is recyclable and what is not and that the economics of recycling are different now.”

To help educate those in the community about what can and can’t be recycled, MRWMD has launched a year-long awareness campaign to get messaging out via local newspapers and other publications. The district is also releasing an app, “What Goes Where,” to help the community understand what can be placed in the blue bin.

Brownell says haulers also need to recognize the changing economics of recycling. He says charging in accordance with these costs can help a program succeed.

“Where we are at now is the new normal for at least the next two to three years—potentially much longer than that,” Brownell says. “The amount of revenue generated from the sale of recycled materials may not cover the cost of processing in the ways that they did in the past. Having ratepayers, municipalities and independent haulers understand that change is one of the bigger challenges that we face.”

Brownell says the district is working with the haulers that deliver materials to the plant to establish tip and processing fees that recognize quality. This processing fee would be based, in part, upon contamination of incoming single-stream materials above 10 percent. For every percentage point above that, haulers would have to pay a little more.

“We’re trying to create financial incentives to the hauling community to bring us cleaner materials,” Brownell says.

Preparing for the future

Though MRWMD doesn’t have any plans for upgrades at this point, Brownell says he expects discussions over the next year on the merits of incorporating additional optical sorters to target film and flat plastics on the plant’s fiber streams and additional sizing screens to capture smaller grades of brown paper from its mixed paper line.

“These quality standards are becoming the industry standard,” Brownell says. “We have to ask ourselves what the additional investments are that we need to make to either reduce some of our labor costs or increase our quality.”

Brownell says that as the industry works to figure out how to best solve the challenges present in the recycling sector, MRWMD is primed to utilize its resources to find new, and better, solutions for diverting materials.

“What’s interesting about our community is that we have all these waste stream processing activities at one site,” he says. “Over time, it’s going to be fascinating to see what opportunities we have to improve the recycling program in ways that don’t impact the solid waste programs or the composting programs. I want to see how these changes in recycling we’ve seen over the last year impact the rest of the solid waste stream. ... We have a bit of a laboratory here, so it’s going to be an exciting place.”

This article originally ran in the March issue of Waste Today. The author is the editor for Waste Today magazine and can be contacted at